CONSUMER FORUM

Consumer Forum: Decline free service offers

Posted March 10, 2012, at 5:16 p.m.

If you don’t believe the old saying, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” please keep reading.

Thousands of consumers have entered into various commitments and become dissatisfied for one reason or another. At some point they have tried to cancel their agreement, only to have a customer service representative talk them out of it.

The incentive to stay on is often some “free” service. Stick with us, the sales pitch goes, and we’ll throw in a month or two of service “for free.”

Now, a really dissatisfied customer might stand firm … or at least partially firm. In an effort to reach some middle ground (which, in our experience, most consumers are willing to do), the consumer might agree to accept the free period of service only if he or she still can cancel. In our experience, the answer from the customer service person is often, “Sure, you can.”

The truth is, many times you sure can’t. Consumer advocates’ blog sites are filled with stories about customers being promised they could negate an agreement, only to be billed after the fact. Many are charged, not only for the time their agreement was in force, but also for that “free” time. Sometimes charges continue well after a customer thought service was canceled.

We can only pass along the advice of those who have dealt with many more such complaints than we have. The website consumeraffairs.com cites a case in which a woman was told her security service would be canceled after her two months’ free service; she was assured there was no need to call back and affirm her decision to cancel.

Later, she received bills for the two months of “free” service; she ignored them. When she called to complain, she was told to pay up or her account would be turned over to collections.

Consumer Affairs’ advice (with which we agree) is to turn down any offer to extend unsatisfactory service “for free.” If it’s unsatisfactory, what’s the point of staying with it, even if it is really free?

Accepting the free service negates your decision to cancel your agreement. When a bill shows up, it’s your word against the customer service representative’s. Guess who the company is going to believe?

We might like to accept a salesperson’s word at face value. The truth is, that verbal assurance is worth a lot less in a legal sense than a company’s written policy.

When agreeing to accept any service, the Better Business Bureau advises:

• Get the agreement in writing;

• Read terms and conditions carefully;

• Check every bill closely for unexpected charges;

• Mark your calendar for any needed action on your part;

• If you can’t reach an agreement, file a complaint.

We also would remind readers to be wary of verbal agreements reached over the telephone. While these may seem to resolve a dispute, they almost surely will not have the force of a written contract.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or go to necontact.wordpress.com, or email atcontacexdir@live.com.

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